This is the last in a seven-part series of posts on Todd London’s recently published book An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, published by Theatre Communications Group. My intention is not to “review” the book, but rather to use it as a point of inspiration, a leaping off point for thoughts about the current American theatre. My hope is that others will be inspired to do the same – to find those things in his book, or any other book for that matter, that set off mental fireworks.
My introduction to this series inspired by London’s book is here.
Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Well, we’ve reached the end of An Ideal Theater. Chapter 7: “The Artist’s Journey: School, Studio and Stage,” which includes essays by Lee Strasberg, Michaela O’Harra, Theodore Mann, Jose Quintero, Ellen Stewart, Joseph Chaikin, William Ball, and Robert Brustein. Nice lineup, don’t you think? And worth it if only for Jose Quintero’s lyric description of Jason Robards‘ audition for the role of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, and for William Ball’s compressed and crystal-clear outline of the state of theater and his theater’s role in changing it.
But the chapter is focused on education, and if you have read any of my previous posts, or scanned down to see who the heck was writing so much about a single book, you probably noticed that I am a professor of Drama. And so this chapter, focusing on the attempts to educate artists, is of particular interest to me. I’ve got skin in this game.
In the interests of full transparency, I would also note that my doctoral dissertation was on Robert Brustein, a man for whom I have immense respect — indeed, whom I consider the best American theater critic of the second half of the 20th century — but with whom I often am in disagreement. For the record.
It was impossible for me to look at this chapter without placing it within the context of everything that had come earlier in the book, and thus coming to the conclusion that it is in the area of education that, finally, the regional theatre movement has lost its way. Actually, I misstate that somewhat: it isn’t in the area of “education” that there was a problem, but rather in the area of “training.”
I know, I know: they’re only words. But I think the shift from “education” to “training” is indicative of a shift in emphasis that has left the contemporary theatre somewhat bereft of ideas, values or philosophy. Dogs are “trained;” toddlers are “potty trained;” people are educated. A quick glance at the advertisements scattered throughout American Theatre Magazine will reveal dozens of “training programs,” but few if any mentions of education.
But look at those figures from the past who made the biggest difference, or at least those whose essays appear in London’s volume — people like Harold Clurman, Margo Jones, Hallie Flanagan, Frederich Koch, Joseph Papp, Zelda Fichandler, Robert Brustein — and you will find people who knew more than simply how to make theater, they had a very deep sense of why to make theater. They had, in short, a philosophy, a set of values, a metaphysics if you will (as E. F. Schumacher said in his brilliant essay “The Greatest Resource — Education“) that had been carefully developed and deepened over their careers. They had a clear idea of the role of the theater within American society, and, as a result, they were able to serve as a source of inspiration and guidance not only for their organizations but for the theater as a whole.
The push to “professionalize” the education of artists is perfectly understandable, given the historical context. Universities responded to the sudden need of a burgeoning regional theater for actors, directors and designers with the skills to create production of classics. Furthermore, the connection between the university and the regional theater seemed natural and desirable. Wrote Brustein, “I thought that resident theaters had much in common with universities — both were nonprofit institutions representing an alternative to the profit-making corporate world….I had no idea, at the time, how easily nonprofit institutions could be drawn into the vortex of the prevailing system or how shaky were their values.” Such is the danger of focusing on the “how to” while ignoring the “why to.”
Young artists were taught techniques, they participated in workshop productions, they were assigned roles in professional productions associated with their universities, they learned how to audition, how to sing, how to dance, how to do stage combat, how to improvise and do script analysis. What was lost in this rush toward competence was the very thing that was the source and foundation of the movement: a sense of purpose. Careerism all too quickly became the order of the day. But without a sense of purpose, an understanding of the role theatre plays in society, theatre becomes increasingly empty and narcissistic. Without a connection to the outside world, artists increasingly speak to themselves. And the theatre becomes irrelevant, or “deadly” as Peter Brook famously put it.
If you have nothing important to say, it doesn’t matter how well you say it.
Ultimately, Todd London’s marvelous anthology is a reminder of greatness and a source of inspiration. Like a seance in which the voices of the dead are heard and clearly exhort us to reclaim our idealism, our vision, our stubbornness. The artists in this volume were prophets. And like all prophets in the centuries before them, they both criticized and energized, pointing both at what was that should not be, and what wasn’t but ought to be. They said the emperor has no clothes, and they provided the designs for a wardrobe.
As such, I think this anthology should have a place in every university theater curriculum, so that young artists have an idea of the greatness of the art form they wish to join and the people who have contributed to its richness. It should also be placed in every green room across the country as a reminder of why most of us went into the theater in the first place — it is so easy to lose sight in the day-to-day scramble to live and create.
I extend heartfelt thanks to Todd London for putting together this anthology, and to Theatre Communications Group for publishing it.